How to practice

Jeremy Shilley
Submitted: Thu, November 1, 2012 - 5:12pm EDT
Sonoro Community Choir "practicing" hard!
Music teachers are great at helping us learn how to play but sometimes we forget that it is just as important to teach how to practice. This is an article I wrote addressing that idea and sharing tips that I have picked up over the years!

What is practice? Most of us are not simply musical prodigies who pick up an instrument or start to sing and are instantly brilliant.  What makes the great musicians great is their ability to practice well. If we are lucky enough to have good instructors and conductors, we are used to well structured lessons and rehearsals, however for some reason, most of us fall short of applying these same techniques that we see on a weekly basis to our own daily work.


This handout will explore a few techniques on how to make the most out of your own practice time.


Playing, Practicing and Rehearsing


It is important to differentiate the types of activities you participate in when making music. Not all time singing can really be considered practicing.



This is the time you spend just simply enjoying your instrument. Singing or playing through songs you enjoy and just having fun making music (not too concerned with technique or tone). No real goals, just you and your instrument having fun together. Sadly, all too many of us do this for 20 or so minutes per day and call that practice. Don’t get me wrong, just playing has great value because in it you are reminded of why you are a musician in the first place, enjoyment of the art. It is not however, a substitute for goal oriented practice or rehearsal.



This is the meat of your skill improvement. Practicing does many wonderful things but is often not “fun.” This is where you spend large amounts of time working technical issues, running scales and exercises, repeating a small phrase of music, over and over again until it is right. Practicing should occur every day at a set time and for a pre-determined length of time. “Later” or “sometime today” are not on the face of any clock. So saying, “I will practice sometime today will not happen. Set for yourself a specific time each day that will be your practice time. It does not have to be the same time every day, but each day should have a practice time written in like an appointment.


Mon. 6-7, Tues. 3:30-4:30, Wed. 6-7, Thurs. 9-9:30, etc.


Practicing should be highly goal oriented. For example, “Today I intend to clean up the runs in my Handel aria, and bring measure 8 up to full tempo.”  Practicing should take place on a daily basis.



Rehearsing is similar to practicing in that you are still very goal oriented, the difference being that you are focusing on larger goals and sections of music, as well as overall performance habits in particular, preparing for specific performances/contests. Rehearsing will involve singing fully through songs and sets, not stopping to fix mistakes during the run but rather evaluating your performance afterwards.


Now that we have defined the difference between these terms, let’s take a look at some ways to structure your daily and weekly practice/rehearsal sessions.


Every Sunday, take a few minutes to sit down and evaluate your accomplishments from the previous week. You will then use this evaluation to map out some goals for yourself for the coming week. For example:


“This last week I was able to read through all the new music up to speed with the exception of my French aria. My breathing has been better supported; however my jaw is still too tight. This week I intend to get my French up to full tempo, memorize my Italian piece and learn to relax my jaw.”


You will then look at your schedule, see what times you have on each day to practice, and then plan what to do on a given day.


On a daily basis your practice plan might look something like this:


Practice Plan for Tuesday

4:00 - Warm up with open vowel exercises and some light runs. Warm up to a “g” and down to a “c”

4:10 - Practice bar 12 of French aria until it is clean at 72 bpm

4:15 - Run Italian piece multiple times until memorized

4:35 - Practice speaking in rhythm French piece

4:45 - Work baritone entrance in choir piece on pgs. 5 and 6


Obviously, this daily routine will change as needed to suit your skill level, current goals etc... In a performance heavy time of year, you may wish to do more singing through full pieces. In a non-performance time of year when learning a good deal of new music, you may rarely sing full voiced or do complete runs. Speak with your private instructor or conductor about helping you develop these plans.


FAQ’s about Practicing


How much should I practice each day/week?

It will vary a bit from singer to singer and your own schedule, but all singers wishing to improve should plan at least 30-45 minutes per day, 5-6 days per week. 60-90 minutes is ideal for an active performing singer.


If there are some days that I only have 10 minutes what should I do?

Sing for 10 minutes. Skills are built by repetition. In order to develop the necessary muscle memory, frequency is the key. Do not delude yourself, you will never attain proficiency at 10 minutes per day, however, it is still better than skipping days.


I want to practice longer but my voice gets tired out too soon. How do I build endurance?

Your voice is like any other muscle in the body and will get stronger if you work on it. When working on endurance, duration is the key, alternate between full voiced singing and marking with good technique. Also, make sure that you are taking good care of your voice. Often times when singers complain about their voices being tired it ends up being a hydration issue. Have a bottle of water with you while you are practicing. If you have chronic problems with vocal fatigue or discomfort speak with your coach as there may be something physical going on.


I keep repeating the first part of a particular song over and over, but it never seems to improve. What am I doing wrong?

First, check your speed. Singing a piece wrong 25 times only cements the mistakes. Slow the section down until you are able sing it perfectly, then gradually increase the tempo until it back up to speed.

Secondly, isolate the problem. It is unlikely that you have issues with every note in a 4 measure phrase. In fact, there are usually a few key spots that cause all the trouble. Start breaking the part down to its component pieces. Four measures down to one measure, one measure down to a couple of notes etc. until you find the problem. Fix it on a component level and then build it back up.


I can sing my pieces cleanly and up to speed when using the music but can not seem to memorize them. How do I memorize my music?

Everyone learns a bit differently and therefore different memorization techniques work for different people. You should work with your instructor to find specific techniques for your learning modality; however one key for everyone is repetition. Singing something once per day or even 2 or 3 times per day is not repetition. When striving for memorization, sometimes 10-20 times per day is what is needed. Find a good recording of the piece you are trying to learn and listen to it on an iPod while doing other activities. Some people memorized by handwriting their lyrics out on 3X5 cards and carrying them around with them. The key to learning how to memorize, is keep trying different methods until something works for you.


My instructor does not push me in my skills. What should I say?

An instructor works for you, but he/she can not know your goals unless you articulate them. Be clear about what you want and where you are having trouble. Don’t be afraid to push your instructor to push you. If you do ask to be pushed, and the instructor is unable or unwilling to help you with your goals, it is then time to find another instructor. Ask around, find singers who you feel exhibit the kind of improvement that you seek and ask about their instructor. Do not be afraid to try out different instructors until you find someone that meets your needs.


The level of proficiency you attain as a musician is directly related to how well you practice. Use any and all resources you have to help make the most of your practice time. There is no secret method or magic feather. Keep changing and fine tuning your practice skills until you find a method that works.


Becoming a good musician is very hard work, but is very rewarding. Good luck and keep singing!!

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